The Radio Warriors

Once upon a time, a time not so long ago when people actually talked to each other, a very large media conglomerate launched an endeavor they named “Music Television”, or MTV for short. Famously and prophetically, the very first video played was “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Buggles.

The world has changed immeasurably since then, and MTV has long since stopped being a music channel. Music videos abound on demand on YouTube and music is streamed from the internet. The kids who went to parties and danced the “Rooftop” or the “Cabbage Patch” or “The Running Man” to hip hop lyrics that made you think and catchy beats that made you move gave birth to kids who stand around on dance floors, tweeting and FBing about how great a time they’re having. Styles gave way from clothes and shoes you could dance all night in to short tight dresses and shoes you can’t walk in and pants worn so far below the waist that you can’t walk in them either, let alone dance. Where young men used to ask ladies to dance, they now take over the dance floor waving their hands aggressively, parroting the latest boy-porn rap lyrics about a thug-life they probably don’t really live.

No longer do young people gather around the radio to listen to Mr. Magic break out the latest vinyl, instead young people troll the “mixtape” sites waiting for the free download to drop. And if you asked, many of them don’t actually know why they are even called “mixtapes”, let alone what a cassette looks like. Vinyl was replaced by CDs was replaced by iTunes and YouTube, and video did, indeed, kill the radio star.

“Who is Frankie Crocker?” my 14 year old asked.

I tried to explain, tried to impart the excitement we felt as teens, staying up past our parents, playing the radio as loud as they would let us. What it was like when djs “wouldn’t play this record” and so the ones that did were our heroes. And how we’d go to jams or radio events, as excited to see the radio dj’s as we were to see the MC’s.

I confess though, I hardly listen to radio anymore. The R&B stations have mostly been replaced by talk, sports talk, and top-40 “hits” that repeat endlessly, punctuated every eight minutes or less by advertising. If anything killed my love of radio, it was the ads. And so I welcomed “internet radio” and streaming sites, mostly to get away from the them. But the downside was that I, too, forgot about good radio except for the year I worked in a frame store and we listened to NPR, though not for the music.

Luckily, a friend from high school (“shout out to M&A”) hasn’t given up on radio. When I came back into contact with him a few years ago, G-Man told me about the Underground Railroad on WBAI. How it had been founded in 1991 by Jay Smooth and was now the longest-continually-running hip hop show on radio, and how G-Man co-hosted whenever he could, for the love of radio. I listened in one night… and I thoroughly enjoyed. I also became a huge fan of the very thoughtful Jay Smooth and his IllDoctrine videos.

Except I got sidetracked again by life and sort of forgot about WBAI until I heard the very disturbing news that it was in serious jeopardy. That it had laid off most of it’s paid staff who are–rightfully so–extremely unhappy about how the whole thing went down. And there is a lot of blame and accusations (rightly earned, from the looks of it)  that I won’t go into, largely because that part of the situation is not what this post is about.

The Underground Railroad, G-Man and Jay Smooth are, for the moment not on the block because they volunteer. And when I heard that, I begged, harrassed and stalked G-Man to tell me when he’d be co-hosting next, so that I could come take pictures. It was important to me somehow… maybe because it’s the end of an era, possibly. Maybe because I wanted my young man to see remnants of times past. I wanted him to feel a little bit of what I felt when I was his age and I listened to radio.

Finally one evening G-Man was able to have a day off from his non-creative but-what-he-does-for-money-gig, and my Sun and I met him outside of the Student Activities building on the City College campus where WBAI is currently using facilities, and which conveniently enough is two blocks from where I went to high school, and right down the street from where I live now.

That night Jay played a long sequence of music that has been inspirational to hip-hop; lots of James Brown in particular, I remember. And while we sat vibing and talking, Yusuf Lamont (part of the Creative Community Collective) dropped in, and so did Hakim Green. While the music played, these radio warriors spoke of the early days of their careers, and of hip-hop. Mr. Lamont, who had just returned from a trip down south, gave a moving soliloquy about viewing the photo of Emmett Till’s body as a young man, and how deeply it affected him and how he struggled with himself on how to discuss this bit of history with his children.

I took pictures, and like I do, tried to fade into the paneling, not using a flash where ever possible, trying to capture the spirit of the room.

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